Kickin' Brass

Karl Denson Is Taking Success By The Horns.

IT'S BEEN SAID that the formula for success is Opportunity + Preparation = Triumph. In other words, luck plus work equals sold-out shows with screaming fans rushing the stage and fancy platters of hors d'oeuvres in the green room.

It's a formula that seems to be working for horn player Karl Denson. Take, for instance, what is probably the crowning moment in Denson's career to date: the phone call from Lenny Kravitz.

"I met Lenny in 1988, during a session for this guy named Tony LeMans," Denson explained by phone. "A year later, he called and asked me to do the solo on 'Let Love Rule.' "

That was the Opportunity.

Kravitz appreciated the solo so much that he asked Denson to contribute to the entire Let Love Rule album, as well as join him on tour. That led to work on Mama Said and Are You Gonna Go My Way? and subsequent tours for each record.

That was the Preparation.

Though after Are You Gonna Go My Way? Kravitz bid farewell to horns, the door had been opened -- Denson merely needed to walk through it.

"I started my jazz recording career in '92," he recalls. "It conflicted with Lenny's gigs. I wasn't playing that much saxophone with I left and took my chances."

In 1994, a stylish San Diego MC named DJ Greyboy joined forces with a groove band called the Allstars and created one of the important unions in acid jazz history: the Greyboy Allstars. The group caught, and helped create, the American acid jazz wave of the '90s and quickly became one of the largest drawing club and festival acts of its kind across the country.

Denson, saxophonist, flutist and singer, was one of the band's leaders. Talented and passionate, he's the kind of horn player who closes his eyes when he blows.

Denson's always on some kind of mission, and these days it's to put his music on the airwaves. His odds are good; not only does he adhere to the formula, but he's able to adapt his music to current trends, without (and this is the key) abandoning the genres that have influenced his sound.

"We were lucky enough to create a buzz with the Allstars right when dance music shifted in our direction," Denson said. "Then it shifted back towards mainstream R&B and hip-hop...and kind of left us in the lurch. [So] we made a crossover into the hippie market."

Besides his obvious musical ability, Denson has an adept understanding of music's history and trends, which he uses to the benefit of his career. Simply put, he can cross over when the crossing's good.

"Acid jazz is a late-'80s blend of DJs spinning tracks with a soloist or horn section playing over it," he explained on KPBS' The Lounge. "When they finally ran out of James Brown, Parliament, rock and roll, and funk tunes to sample, they turned to jazz."

By '97, the Greyboy Allstars had begun to grow apart. "The band stopped creating freely," says Denson. "So we took some time off. But the time off became longer and longer, until I just started my own thing."

Denson's "own thing," Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, is now available in the jazz sections of record stores across the country. Denson and his new band are currently on a national tour to support the album.

Denson has already shown that he can follow the formula. But now that he's gotten the music world's attention, how will he parlay that into a fancy platter of hors d'oeuvres?

"Attack the record companies," he declared. "Make ourselves more visible...push for a more vocal, mainstream appeal. I want to get on the radio. I think I write good enough tunes. I want a nice, fat budget so I can relax and make a record slowly, and make it right."

Karl Denson's Tiny Universe appears at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 27, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Advance tickets are available for $10 at Zip's University, CD City, Guitars Etc. and the Congress Street Store. For more information, call 798-3333.
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